The Magazine

Why They Fought

For more reasons than you might think.

Jul 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 42 • By WINSTON GROOM
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But New England, which had resented the South since the initial flurry of Virginia presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Tyler—abolished slavery soon after the Revolution and expected everyone else to do so as well. It was in New England—which itself had attempted to secede from the Union in 1814 over dissatisfactions with Madison’s War of 1812—that the abolition movement began. By 1820, it had been well established on the premise that slavery was a social evil, and abolitionists agitated on that basis until the early 1840s, when leaders decided that slavery was a “moral wrong.”  

This, for the next two decades, precipitated a frenzy of accusations and name-calling between the two sections of the country, even prompting religious schisms. The Baptists and Methodists separated into Northern and Southern branches, and churchgoing Southerners found themselves shocked and distressed at being called “evil barbarians,” among other scandalous names, by Northerners they did not even know. In 1828, against the furious opposition of its Southern members, Congress (led by a New England president, John Quincy Adams) passed what came to be called the “Tariff of Abominations,” a protectionist measure that not only cost the South cotton sales, but caused the price of most of the goods it bought to rise as much as 50 percent.

Hatred infected every walk of life, even the sedate United States Senate. In 1856, a South Carolina congressman named Preston Brooks became so incensed at an antislavery speech made by the Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner—which included a reference to Brooks’s relative, Senator Andrew Butler, as choosing “the harlot, Slavery” to be his “mistress”—that he accosted Sumner at his desk in the Senate chamber and caned him nearly to death with a gold-handled gutta-percha walking stick. Northern condemnation of this outburst was universal while delighted Southerners showered Brooks with replacement canes. 

Then there was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bestselling (in the North) novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which outraged Southerners charged was overblown, exaggerated nonsense, and a slur on their way of life. Newspapers on both sides contributed immensely to the furor, with Northern papers making up stories depicting slaves’ lives as relentless nightmares of cruelty and sorrow, and Southern journals manufacturing tales of abolitionists fomenting slave insurrections.

For their part, a good many Southerners had subscribed to the theory, advanced by such luminaries as Jefferson Davis and Raphael Semmes, that Yankees constituted an entirely different race of people, and a lower one at that, thus ratcheting up the un-pleasantness to a new level. This novel theory held that the North was populated by descendants of the Puritan Roundheads of Oliver Cromwell, who, in 1649, had overthrown and executed Charles I before being themselves forced to flee to Holland, and finally settling in New England. Once there, they had become a dour, money-grubbing tribe who persecuted Roman Catholics and instigated the Salem witch trials, stirring up trouble wherever they went.

Southerners, on the other hand (or so this notion held), were the cohort of Cromwell’s enemies, the “gay cavaliers” of Charles II and his glorious Restoration, who settled at Jamestown and spread across the South with their easygoing, chivalrous, and honest ways—omitting, perhaps on purpose, that settlers of other Southern states, such as Georgia, had been convicts.

In any case, by the eve of the Civil War, antipathy between the two regions was such that it prompted one elderly Tennessean to declare: 

I wish there was a river of fire a mile wide between the North and South that would burn with unquenchable fury forevermore, and that it could never be passable to the endless ages of eternity by any living creature.

With talk like that, it’s a wonder the war didn’t start earlier. A Southern woman was heard to lament around that time that “because of incompatibility of temper .  .  . we have hated each other so. If we could only separate, a ‘séparation à l’agréable,’ as the French say it, and not have a horrid fight for divorce.” But that was not to be, and the divorce was hotly contested.